Sunday, August 30, 2009

Abandoned Things: Forsaken Cities of American Rust

(click on image for larger view)

I’m currently reading Philipp Meyer’s novel American Rust, which is set in Buell, a fictional town in the very real Monongahela Valley of southwestern Pennsylvania which is just south of Pittsburgh. While Pittsburgh has managed to reinvent itself after the decline of the steel industry by attracting high technology enterprises (partly due to the number of large universities and hospitals already located here), the economy of the Mon Valley has never recovered from the hard hit it took when the steel mills closed there in the 1980s.

Through a fluke of timing, my husband and I were living elsewhere during those days when the mills were shutting down. Kevin was born and raised here in Pittsburgh, and I’d moved here to go to school. When we graduated in 1978 and then moved to the west coast, the mills were still running and dominated the Pittsburgh landscape. When we came back in 1985, the mills were being torn down. For us, it was as though they’d disappeared overnight. Today, it’s almost difficult to envision where the mills once stood, and I’m often amazed at how close in proximity to downtown some of them stood.

One of the things of interest to me about the characters in Meyer’s American Rust is their internal struggle with the idea of leaving home. The two main characters, young men named Poe and Isaac, have spent their entire lives growing up in an economically depressed area and witnessing the grim outcome of people struggling to eke out a living where there are few jobs available. They see the older generation trying to hold on to their property and make ends meet on whatever work they can find, trying to hang on to what they still own. Older characters, such as Poe’s mother, know that they have missed opportunities by not leaving and choosing to stay in the place they know as home. The novel begins as Isaac, who has finally decided to leave for California, tries to convince his friend Poe to join him.

It’s always difficult to leave home. There’s probably some part of us that knows it will not be the same when we return. It was a very daunting step for me to take in moving from the mountains of rural central Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, which to me was a huge city. Later, the move to California was equally as daunting, but I knew I had to move on to a place where I could find work, and I wasn’t going to find it back on Jacks Mountain or even in Pittsburgh due to the large number of art school graduates being pumped into the job market here. I never gave a thought to the possibility that Pittsburgh might change, though. Maybe because back then I didn’t know I’d be returning to Pittsburgh to settle down. Or, possibly, the city simply seemed too big and established to change.

Kevin and I recently took a drive to Brownsville, which is located at the far southern end of the Mon Valley. We were both surprised by what an arduous drive it was even though we took the new Mon Valley expressway. It’s a long drive down Route 51, a winding gauntlet of traffic light stops on a road lined by shopping plazas with vacant stores. Once we finally reached the expressway, we found very little traffic using it.

Brownsville had once been a thriving city with several passenger trains stopping daily at the station. Now, on Market Street along a curving narrow stretch called “The Neck” through the business district, several blocks are lined with boarded-up storefronts and condemned buildings. At one end of this stretch near the Dunlap Creek Bridge once stood a movie theater which has been demolished, and at the other end Union Station still stands, although passenger trains no longer stop there and coal and freight trains comprise the rail traffic.

To further complicate things, an investor bought most of the historic buildings along The Neck, planning to restore them and revitalize the area as an historic business district. Unfortunately the investor went bankrupt, and now those buildings are caught up in litigation. Condemned signs are now posted on many of the structures and it’s not hard to imagine these buildings being torn down, leaving a big empty space.

Some towns have managed to preserve their historic districts. Other towns try to recreate vintage shopping districts by erecting new buildings with old fashioned facades, the structures usually laid out around a central town square, but the result often creates a feeling of Disneyland unreality. One such shopping district which has been successful stands on the site of the old Homestead mill site near Pittsburgh. Another very prosperous but more contemporary styled shopping district is Pittsburgh’s SouthSide Works on the site of the old Jones & Laughlin Steel Company’s South Side mill. Both of these open-air type mall complexes made up of retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, residential and office space are located along the Monongahela River.

For places which are more remote, such as Brownsville in the lower Mon Valley, there are fewer opportunities to reinvent and reemerge, and fewer residents to support them. American Rust is about the loss of the American Dream. That dream as we grew up to believe in it may be a relic of the past, and it is yet to be seen whether we can create a new version of a dream for future generations to believe in.

Photo Credits: Both photographs copyright ©2009 by Dory Adams
Top Photo: “The Neck,” Market Street, Brownsville, PA
Bottom Photo: Union Station, Brownsville, PA

1 comment:

cynthia newberry martin said...

Nice post and pictures on an intriguing topic. I'm glad to hear about this novel. Love its cover and title!